Hammonton High School tennis coach Casey McCullough didn't want to just take over a team five seasons ago.
McCullough's mentor, Mike Gatley, the president of the Cape-Atlantic League and former Hammonton athletic director who's now at Mainland Regional, told her it was all about building programs.
She took that literally.
McCullough has compiled a 68-36 record, with 54 of those wins coming in the last two-and-a-half seasons.
The boys team is 13-4 this season, No. 10 in the Press Elite 11 and reaching for the program's second appearance in the South Jersey Group III final. The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils face No. 3 Delsea Regional at 4 p.m. today in the semifinals.
"These kids work hard, act right and they will always have my respect. Because of those two things, we have built something great together," McCullough, the 2011 Press Coach of the Year, said an in email last week.
"Our team has had some amazing seasons and keeps making school history. More importantly than that, I feel fortunate to be a part of this little utopia of incredible people.
"I am competitive and I love winning, but what I have enjoyed the most is the process."
The 2011 boys team made school history when they reached the South Jersey Group III final and won a share of the CAL National Conference title. That team went 21-2 and earned a spot in the Elite 11 rankings for the first time since 2004 when The Press began ranking tennis teams.
Despite three players graduating from that team, McCullough was able to continue the team's success as the Blue Devils' finished 19-7 in 2012.
McCullough has a strong and experienced singles lineup this season, like the one she had in 2011.
Junior first singles player Pete Lancetta, a Press first-team All-Star in 2012, returned healthy after battling a hip-flexor injury last year.
Junior second singles player Michael Seligman, a transfer from Cherokee, came to Hammonton with two years of varsity experience and junior Jonathan McCarthy returned to his spot at third singles. Lancetta is 17-4, Seligman 16-3 and McCarthy 14-5.
The doubles teams took a little longer to figure out.
Senior Dave Donio-Enscoe and junior Stevie Salvatore paired up later in the season and are 13-2, including a trip to the CAL Individual Tournament doubles final before falling to Vineland's Darren Tomasso and Nick Mayo.
Sophomore Marcus Mitchell and senior Thomas Cutts also joined forces midway through the season and are 7-2 at second doubles.
"I think these kids and what they achieved made people realize that Hammonton has a boys tennis program, and it's something that serious athletes play at our school," McCullough said. "But it is still something that some of the kids are starting late, in terms of tennis standards. But it's that work ethic that allows my team to be so successful despite the fact that they are starting tennis later than some of their counterparts."
McCarthy was one of those players that picked up the sport his freshman year. He earned a spot on the outdoor track and field team, but was swayed by Salvatore to try tennis. His older brothers, Brendan and Matt McCarthy, played tennis, which helped him make his decision. But what kept him on the team was McCullough's strong coaching style.
"I think it's really awesome playing with her," the 17-year old Atco resident said in a telephone interview last week. "She's really laid back and she loves the game so much that it becomes easy to want to play tennis all the time. After practice, she'll stay, and hit on weekends if people want to. It's a great atmosphere and it made me really love the game."
Hammonton defeated Delsea in a scrimmage during the preseason. The Blue Devils have won four straight and could likely meet top-seeded Moorestown in the final Monday.
"We definitely have to stay focused as a team," said Lancetta, 17. "We can't take any team lightly, but with the way everyone has been playing late in the season so far, I'm definitely liking our chances."
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